|Air Chief crash lands - The night that wrecked his career
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|Author:||Sunday Times [ Sun Jul 31, 2005 4:35 am ]|
|Post subject:||Air Chief crash lands - The night that wrecked his career|
The night that wrecked Air Chief's career
By Tania Fernando
@ Sunday Times / 07JUL2002
A chequered 30-year career in the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) for Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody ended abruptly last Friday (06JUL2002).
He retired as Commander of the SLAF 20 days after an accident involving his official car and a lorry, triggering off a scandal that embarrassed the UNF government and sent shock waves in the defence establishment.
When his Puegeot 406 mowed into a lorry around 4.15 am on June 15 at the D.S. Senanayake Junction (that links Castle Street to Horton Place), the lorry assistant Ratnasena Silva was badly injured. Suffering minor injuries was Flight Lieutenant Nilani Diyadawage, Officer-in-Charge of the Women's Unit of the SLAF who was in the front seat of the car. Both were rushed to Colombo National Hospital. Whilst the lady officer was discharged after treatment, the lorry assistant who struggled for his life died at 12.10 am on Friday.
City Coroner, Edward Ahangama, who held the inquest delivered a verdict of death due to scepticemia. Maligakanda Additional Magistrate, S.D.A. Thaseem, directed Air Marshal Weerakkody to appear before Court on Tuesday after Borella Police filed a "B" Report.
The days after the accident had been riddled with tense drama. A businessman from Mirihana, said to be a one time supplier to the SLAF, spearheaded a campaign to brush the incident under the carpet. Claiming he had made a donation of five million rupees to the UNP's election campaign fund and boasting that he counted many government leaders as close associates, the man not only spoke to bureaucrats, police officials and politicians but also to many media personnel. There were offers of attractive financial handouts if the incident was kept out from the glare of publicity. He was to argue that this was insignificant compared to former US President Bill Clinton's love tryst with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
What the AF law says
This is what section 107 of the Air Force says regarding conduct of officers:
107. Every officer who, being a person subject to this Act, behaves in a scandalous manner, unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman, shall be guilty of an air-force offence and shall, on conviction by a court martial, be cashiered.
Following an investigation, The Sunday Times has been able to piece together the sequence of events leading to the scandal. It began on the night of June 14 when Air Marshal Weerakkody attended a cocktail party at the residence of the head of a Western diplomatic mission. There, eye witnesses said, he helped himself to whisky. There were many other senior Air Force officers who were at the same function.
Later, most of the Air Force invitees to the diplomatic cocktails had turned up at the Senior Officers Mess at the Thunmulla Junction in Bambalapitiya. There, Lal Perera, Director of Aeronautical Engineering, was hosting a party to celebrate his promotion to the rank of Director, Aeronautical Engineering. Air Marshal Weerakkody, who arrived there, sipped beer. He was in such ahappy mood that he took the unusual step of dancing with some male colleagues. Later a female officer joined him on the floor. A senior officer in the Directorate of Management was seen to whisper a message in his ears. It later turned out that he was warning Air Marshal Weerakkody to be cautious.
It was around 1.30 am and the party at the Senior Officer's Mess continued. Air Marshal Weerakkody who left at this time turned up at the Library, an exclusive club, at Trans Asia Hotel in the company of the female officer. There they spent time. A Cabinet Minister who was present ordered several rounds of Tequila for the duo. From there, Air Marshal Weerakkody and the female companion adjourned to Blue Elephant, the nightclub at ColomboHilton.
Eye witnesses there said they drank Tequila there and danced together.Their demeanour drew the attention of many at the Blue Elephant. One among a group of youngsters asked his friend "who's that lucky guy ?" His friend responded in a whisper "that's the Commander of the Air Force." They had left past 2.30 am.
It was only after the nearly new Puegeot official car crashed into the lorry that a number of questions arose. A policeman who arrived at the scene identified Air Marshal Weerakkody. The injured lorry assistant and the lady officer were rushed to hospital. The Air Force Commander's personal security staff, said to be fiercely loyal to him, arrived at the scene and whisked him away to his residence.
By next morning (Saturday), Upul Jayakody had turned up at the Borella Police to own up that he drove the Air Force Commander's official vehicle. That was whilst the police had not interviewed Air Marshal Weerakkody for many days.
Not until Nimal Gunatilleke, DIG, Commandant of the Police Special Task Force, who was acting for DIG Colombo, Bodhi Liyanage, was asked to conduct an inquiry. Mr Liyanage himself figured in the incident after reports that Air Marshal Weerakkody telphoned him soon after the incident. It was alleged that Mr. Liyanage thereafter asked the police to let Air Marshal Weerakkody leave. Hence it is claimed that no Breathalyser tests could be carried out. He also reportedly ordered the release of the damaged vehicle even before it could be tested by an examiner of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Liyanage has, however, denied Air Marshal Weerakkody spoke to him.
Mr Liyanage was on a visit to Japan when Mr. Gunatilleke began his inquiry. On Wednesday, Police Chief, Lucky Kodituwakku, had arranged his conference room for Mr. Gunatilleke to record Air Marshal Weerakkody's statement.
Mr. Gunatilleke told The Sunday Times his investigations had confirmed that it was Air Marshal Weerakkody who had driven the official vehicle. He is learnt to have denied any prior knowledge of Air Force driver Upul Jayakody turning up at the Borella Police to claim he was the driver.
After making the statement to Police, Air Marshal Weerakkody met Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at Temple Trees on Wednesday afternoon to inform him that he would send in his papers for retirment. On Thursday, he also met President Chandrika Kumaratunga to convey his decision. That evening, he handed in his papers of retirement to Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, who in turn sent them to President Kumaratunga via Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana. President Kumaratunga intimated that she had accepted the retirement. Air Vice Marshal Donald Perera, now Chief of Staff, is to be appointed the new Air Force Commander.
The Commander spoke not a word
Dressed in a gray trouser, white shirt and tie the Air Marshal stood pensively beside the city coroner, and kept wiping the sweat off his face.
He listened while Lankeshwara Arthur, the driver of lorry 43-5731 told a packed court of the incident in the early hours of June 15, where his vehicle was involved in an accident with the official vehicle of the former Air Force Commander Jayalath Weerakkody. The driver said he had stopped the vehicle when he saw the red light. When the traffic light changed to green he engaged gears, when he heard a loud screeching noise. "Something had crashed on the left side of the vehicle. I looked for my assistant and could not find him.
"I got off the vehicle and then I saw him lying on the ground near a car", he said. The driver said that he sought the assistance of a man who stood close to a petrol station nearby, to extricate his assistant. "Ratnasena told me I am badly injured. Take me to hospital. Just then a Police jeep which arrived at the scene took the female who was in the vehicle and Ratnasena to hospital," the driver said.
He said the occupant of the other vehicle (now known to be the Commander) had spoken to him and when he told the Commander his lorry was proceeding from Elivitigala Mawatha, the Commander had said that he too was coming from that direction.
"I said no sir, you came from Horton Place and then he said sorry, yes I came from Horton Place", the driver said.
Coroner Edward Ahangama returned a verdict of death due to Septicemia-infection of the blood by harmful bacteria (blood poisoning). He directed Air Marshal Weerakkody to appear before the Maligakanda Magistrates courts on Tuesday.
Earlier on Friday, Borella Police filed the B report at the Maligakanda Magistrates Court seeking a Court order to arrest the Commander and produce him in courts.
Additional MagistrateS. D. A. Thaseem reprimanded the police for failing to bring the case before the court for 20 days.
The Magistrate refused to issue an arrest warrant but directed the Air Marshal to appear in court on Tuesday.
Police had told the Magistrate in the B report that an investigation conducted by the then acting DIG Colombo Nimal Gunathilake had confirmed that Air Marshal Weerakkody was at the wheel when his Peugeot 406 official car crashed into the lorry
The Air Force Commander had said he was on his way to drop Flight Lt. Ms. Diyadagamage who lives at Rajagiriya.
The Air Force Commander had identified himself as the commander to the Police officer who rushed to the scene after the accident.
The Police said they had to carry out further investigations into the case as an airman identified as Upul Jayakody had called at the police station and claimed he was the driver of the vehicle which met with the accident at the Senanayake junction in Borella.
Family told not to talk, but here's what they said
While national headlines were focused on the scandal swirling around the Air Force Commander, we visited the home of lorry assistant Ratnasena Silva as he was still battling for life at the National hospital on Thursday.
The tin roof of the two roomed house in Kalamulla in Payagala leaks during rain. There is just one solitary bed in one of the rooms with a clothes rack just beside it. The other rooms consist of three plastic chairs and a small table.
These are all the belongings of Mr. Silva . He was the sole bread winner for his family of five - wife, three sons aged 22, 18 and 17. The two elder sons are unemployed whilst the youngest is in school.
The family has been warned not to speak to the media. But I persuaded one of them to chat with me. This family member said Air Force officials were helpful and were taking care of their needs.
"Our prayer is that he recovers soon," Mr. Silva's wife Leelawathie said, unaware that soon after midnight the end would come.
We were told that the Air Force Commander had volunteered to pay all the medical bills. He had even offered to transfer Mr. Silva to a private nursing home if required. He had obtained three injections, each costing Rs 3,000, milk powder and other daily necessities.
"The Commander promised to help find employment for the two sons and to look after Mr. Silva in the event he could not fend for himself," the family member said. We also visited the national hospital, while Mr. Silva was being treated there. There too we found the staff had been told not to allow media personnel to speak to the accident victim. They had also been told not to provide information about the condition of the patient.
When we asked Dr. Hector Weerasinghe, Director of the National Hospital, he said the patient had asked that no photographs be taken. Nurses at Ward 21 said they were under instructions not to talk about the patient's condition.
Yesterday we visited the house again but this time Mr. Silva's wife and children were seated besides the coffin still unable to accept what had happened. His wife Leelawathi kept weeping and was being consoled by another relative.
The coffin just fit the room in the house along with a few chairs. A shed with some chairs was made on the road, where a few relatives and neighbours were seated.
A family member said a businessman, who owns a building which houses a casino had given them Rs. 50,000 and had promised that a house would be built and money provided for them. He had also promised jobs for the sons. The family member also said they would be taking no legal action against the Commander, as they accepted that it was an accident.
Lorry assistant Ratnasena Silva underwent six operations since the accident. He passed away after 20 days of suffering. And during those 20 days, the high and mighty in the arms business, fought a different battle - to keep the details of the incident away from the public. They succeeded only for 20 days.
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